Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society-Henrietta Howard

Written by Jess Burchett

Although period romances frequently grace our screens, whether its Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice or the recent Netflix sensation Bridgerton, how familiar are we with the real elite women of the 18th century? Here follows 5 profiles of interesting women of the time – not defined by their marital success but rather by their achievements and influence in politics, art, travel and their navigation of the labyrinthine life known as ‘high society’.

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Henrietta Howard

Born in 1689 to a titled and respected Norfolk family, she lost everything by the age of 12. Orphaned with mounting family debts, she became the ward of Henry Howard, 5th Earl of Suffolk, marrying his youngest son Charles by 17. She bore a son, Henry but the marriage was disastrous. Charles was an abusive husband, squandering all their fortune on drinking, gambling and whoring.

A determined and resourceful woman, she raised funds to travel in 1713, making the sacrifice of leaving her son behind in England. She and Charles travelled to the Protestant Hanoverian court in Germany, hoping to gain favour with the future royals. She charmed Electress Sophia, George I’s mother and became her lady-in-waiting. Upon the death of Sophia and Queen Anne of England in 1714, George I ascended the throne.

Henrietta returned to England with the royal household, earning the positions as Woman of the Bedchamber to Princess Caroline and mistress to George II. These dual roles were challenging, requiring great tact and diplomacy. Caroline was happy with her as a mistress, although she occasionally snubbed Henrietta in public. In 1723, Henrietta gained financial independence from a settlement George II made with her husband in exchange for her services as a mistress. 

Henrietta purchased land in Twickenham, constructing Marble Hill House in 1724. A few years later George II ascended the throne, giving Henrietta even greater prestige at court. She had to deal with unwelcome approaches by those seeking royal favour and bullying from her husband who was eager for her wealth. Despite her fading relationship with the King but still in his good stead, he recognised her marital troubles and both bought off her husband and helped finish the construction of Marble Hill. She officially separated from Charles that year.

Marble Hill became the centre for Henrietta’s influential circle, she was a patron of architecture. She entertained friends on a scale rivalling the royal court, attracting the attention of many notable writers, politicians and courtiers. Described as handsome, witty and intelligent, she enjoyed correspondence with literary luminaries and befriended lords and ladies in high political positions. Amongst her peers she was considered the model of decorum.

Charles became the Earl of Suffolk in 1731. Henrietta became the Countess and was appointed Queen Caroline’s Mistress of Robes due to her new high status. The position was less demanding, and her relationship with the King was coming to a close. Charles died in 1733 and the following year she retired from court with a pension of £2000 a year, finally a free woman.

Never without hope, Henrietta took a second chance at marriage in 1735 with politician George Berkeley. Surviving letters between the couple reveal that it was a loving and caring relationship, the two never wanting to be apart. Together they visited friends on the continent and extended Marble Hill. She bought the lease of a new house in Savile Street, enjoying the challenge of fitting it out as much as Marble Hill. When George died in 1746, she retired there permanently. The house became home to her niece, nephew and later her great-niece whom she helped raise. She died in 1767 and was buried next to George at Berkeley Castle.

Written by Jess Burchett

The following article of the series Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society is going to discuss Anne Seymour Damer

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